The American religious experience has a long tradition of using scriptural metaphors and few were as adept at using these metaphors as Martin Luther King Jr. His speeches are awash in applications of scriptural language and events to the needs of his day. His people were chosen Israel being brought to the promised land. Stripped of the misconceptions that overwhelmed the hearing of my parents and grandparents and of Mormon culture in his time, to me, who has only heard his words in years following his death, King’s metaphors, message and his delivery of that message are communicated in an awesome grandeur that make it almost impossible to not be caught in his message, in his movement and in his justice.
Unfortunately, they may be a tad dramatic for General Conference, at least in our current Mormon culture.
Still, it seems to me that we can do more with the scriptural metaphors at our disposal. In comparison to Martin Luther King, we don’t use enough metaphor in our discourses and speeches. This is especially sad because of the rich resources we have available — we have the Book of Mormon.
Let me give an example of what I mean: Samuel the Lamanite.
Samuel is, of course, an actual person, a prophet in the Book of Mormon. But he is also a character, a metaphor that can be used to describe a lot of our world today. Here’s a few thoughts on what Samuel the Metaphor might mean:
- Samuel represents overcoming tradition. Because he has become righteous out of a tradition that has been evil, Samuel is a metaphor for rising out of evil, for overcoming the influence of the culture that surrounds us from birth.
- Samuel represents ministry in the face of adversity. Our iconic image of Samuel is Arnold Frieberg’s painting of him standing on the walls of a Nephite city, preaching despite the arrows in flight headed towards him.
- Samuel represents overcoming racism. It occurs to me that the story of Samuel the Lamanite could be read as a racial story. The Lamanites had a different skin color, and lived apart from those of white skin color. It is possible that the historical record available to them led the Nephites to look down on the Lamanites as “evil.” When Samuel the Lamanite began to preach, the Nephites ignored him, and even the few righteous Nephites didn’t bother to include his writings among those of the prophets. It took Christ’s intervention to have his words included.
I’d love to hear what other concepts Samuel represents in your experience. Probably the strangest one for me came from a Spanish-speaking member I corresponded with who thought that Samuel the Lamanite was a “shameful and reproachful name like that of cursed and marked beings, especially among English-Speaking Mormonism.” (my rough translation from Spanish). I’ve since asked many other Spanish-speaking members and haven’t had that reaction from anyone. I’m having a hard time seeing this view as anything but a reaction to the “Lamanite” surname. Does anyone have an idea that might explain this?
Of course, there are other metaphors and symbols from the Book of Mormon that we do use. We use the Liahona, the Iron Rod, the Golden Plates, the Sword of Laban, the Great and Spacious Building, etc., etc. Book of Mormon stories are preached from the pulpit, and the metaphors there do have power. But I think Samuel is unusual.
As I’ve looked at Samuel the Lamanite, I see potential as a metaphor that seems very significant. I especially like the idea that he representgs overcoming racism. In a sense, Samuel the Lamanite is the Martin Luther King of the Book of Mormon — the figure that brings his people to cultural respect, who brings them into the promised land.
And for today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I think its a great metaphor to meditate on.
12 thoughts on “Samuel the Metaphor”
Very interesting, Kent. I think we are missing some great resources and opportunities by not using Book of Mormon metaphors more freqently and/or creatively. I would like to see this done in film more often. I don’t mean modernizing scriptural stories a-la-Veggietales or even Liken the Scriptures or Turn Around. I mean that I would like to see more serious scriptural imagery in non-scriptural stories, more less-than-obvious interpretation and less parody.
Regarding Samuel, on your third point (racism), I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that the righteous Nephites didn’t bother include his words. As I read Christ’s instruction regarding the Nephite records, it seems that only the specifc prophecy about the resurrection of dead saints was missing. I think Samuel’s prophecy probably had a great deal of weight at the time it was given because it did give a specific time period for Christ’s arrival. The wicked Nephites made a big deal out of that, which implies to me that it was a well known and widely believed prophecy among the righteous. Also, that the Nephites who believed as a result of Samuel’s prophecy went to Nephi to be baptized suggests that there may have been a degree of solidarity between the Nephite and Lamanite churches. In other words, these Nephites didn’t think of Samuel as some non-denominational Lamanite preacher. They knew he was associated with the same organization as Nephi.
All that aside, I do agree with the basic premise: that Samuel can be used as a metaphor for overcoming racism. Christ’s singling him out as a significant prophet certainly does cast aside any Nephite claims of preference.
Actually, it seems to me that the only thing not recorded was the fulfillment of that prophecy. And when you consider the earthquakes and the darkness and so forth, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to not have gotten too yet.
(Incidentally, you reminded me of this.)
One thing I think of regarding Samuel is that while he refers to himself as “a Lamanite”, the recordkeepers refer to him as “the Lamanite” — this obviously shows the respect they had for him, but it could reflect a racist sentiment underneath. Like, you know, I like Sammy Davis, Jr, but that’s different, you know you know you know. (Sorry if that link’s screwy — I can’t access YouTube at work, so I can’t check it.)
There’s no doubt Book of Mormon peoples were heavily aware of their differing lineages. Hundreds of years pass and everyone still knows whether they’re a Jacobite or a Josephite. So those lines never went away. Even after the -ites-less period, those groups reformed, redrawing old lines.
For me, Samuel also represents a great loss. An incredible prophet and we only see a couple days of his ministry. A shame.
Re: Huckabee – In my experience, Mormons are generally more scripturally literate than the general public. Maybe it’s the high concentration of RMs or the three-hour block. 🙂 But you’re right, there is the risk of losing it in translation.
Oh, one more thing, Th.
You make an interesting point about “a” and “the.” It might also be just the difference between first and third person, in my opinion, rather than part of a term of distinction like “Hamlet, the Dane.”
“Lamanite” might be used as a sort of stock epithet by Mormon. It could also just be the way Nephites referred to him. Kind of like we do with the Almas or the Moronis to distinguish them. Who knows how many Samuels Mormon was used to talking and writing about?
Richard Cracroft calls for a similar thing in his 1992 AML Presidential Address, “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in in LDS Literature”, which was a critique of Bruce Jorgensen’s “To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say,” which was a critique of Cracroft’s earlier review of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems. In turn, Gideon Burton jumped into the dialogue with his award winning essay “Should We Ask, ‘Is This Mormon Literature?’ Towards a Mormon Criticism.” I haven’t read the whole conversation in a while, but, among other things, it touches on the very issue at the core of Kent’s post and your comment: how can Mormon artists (including writers) and critics create an artistic heritage that speaks to the Saints using LDS metaphors and experience? And, perhaps more importantly, is it possible to do this without falling into parody or becoming provincial (which would represent, in my mind, a damning failure in terms of the potential of Mormon arts to speak to a larger audience than Jack and Molly Mormon [an interesting pair] and Peter Priesthood)?
(BTW: Since “Jack Mormon” is so gender exclusive, what do we call his female counterpart?)
Samuel also strikes me as a metaphor for obedience, persistence, and innovation. After the people of Zarahemla rejected him and he was about to return to his own land, an angel told him to go back. So he did, though he didn’t approach his task in the conventional way: instead of entering through the city gate as he had the first time, he tried another way—the wall. I’ve often referred to this experience (as well as to Alma’s innovative return to Ammonihah) in my own problem solving. When things don’t work as I’ve planned them to the first time and I know the thing I’m pursuing is a worthy objective, instead of giving up, I ask myself (and God) if there might be another, less obvious way to approach the problem. And in every instance, I’ve been able to scale that city wall (though it may take some time to get there).
I know I was yelling at the idiots on the radio when I heard that show. There were a couple stories I would admit were more difficult, most of them were very basic stuff. (Point: Go! Mormons! Yay!)
The the/a thing: It’s important to remember that the Book of Mormon is a translation — and a translation of an abridgment of….who knows how many steps there were, total. So it’s a big leap for me to claim that the determiners have significance. But I still choose to look at them as a symbol of respect.
I still choose to look at them as a symbol of respect.
I admit that’s a possibility. I tend to give the Book of Mormon more credit for linguistic accuracy than I would another book with its heritage because it was prophetically brought forth. So I don’t think your leap is as big as it would otherwise be.
In my opinion, the original text probably didn’t have determiners at all. The whole reason they wrote in reformed Egyptian is because it didn’t take up much space. Think all the thes in our version of the book and obviously they’ll be the first thing to go.
That said, the prophetic angle changes the equation. Precisely how becomes a matter of faith. But then, it is scripture.
I have plans for a pseudo-epic poem called “Samuel Returns” that solidly places Samuel in to the tradition of the lone prophetic voice of “wo, wo, wo unto this people” who is rejected. He’s a Lehi and an Isaiah. Even more — he is a John the Baptist.
I love the delicious irony that this Lamanite is the one telling these angry Nephites the signs — the signs that would later get them all riled up, that would would later lead to them falling to the ground in amazement.
Sadly, I lost several of my notes for this work.
The John connection is strong, very strong. Is “several” a significant percentage?
I also lost a computer file from like 1999 so between the two incidents (the other was a manila envelope stuffed with scraps of paper) probably 50-60%. Now it wasn’t put together — it was mainly phrases and notes. But it is a bit depressing, especially since I’ve generally been very good about keeping backups of my creative work. And yet at the same time, I figure it’s the kind of piece that I may revise and publish several times in my life so for it to ebb and flow out of my life makes sense.